Economy, energy trump social issues in statehouse

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A year after the Legislature's ban on gay marriages and concealed weapons took effect, social issues are largely absent from the House or Senate floor and hearing rooms.

It's going to stay that way, for now at least.

Senate President Bill Harris and House Speaker Jon Husted, both Republicans, say their priorities over the next nine months are reviving Ohio's economy, creating jobs and trying to contain the price of energy, especially gasoline and natural gas.

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Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who sponsored the gay marriage ban, said many of the so-called values issues have already become law and it's time to focus on pocketbook issues.

''That's not to say we're deserting those issues. What hasn't turned around to anybody's satisfaction is the economy of the state of Ohio,'' Seitz said Friday.

Harris is emphasizing the work of special committees created in the budget bill that became law in July. Lawmakers and other interested parties are on panels studying the price of higher education, how Medicaid money is spent, developing a state energy policy and other issues. Harris is hopeful that the energy committee can come up with a way to make natural gas and gasoline more affordable, or at least keep it from getting more expensive.

''Does the state have an energy policy? We don't have one. We know the answer to that one. If we don't have one, should the state have an energy policy? We should. What should it include?'' Harris said.

That leaves bills such as Sen. Jay Hottinger's proposal to allow couples to voluntarily enter into ''covenant marriages'' grounded in committee for a while.

The bill says couples who want such a marriage must go through counseling and sign a contract saying they understand they would have to go through a yearlong ''cooling off'' period with counseling before getting a divorce in most cases.

Hottinger, a Newark Republican, said he's not counting on passage this legislative session but isn't ruling it out. He cited the gay marriage ban as something that takes time to build support.

''It took us eight years before we were able to get that bill through. Sometimes a bill is ahead of its time. I think the covenant marriage bill is a very important bill,'' Hottinger said. ''Will it happen in the next six months or the next 18 months? I don't know.''

The Ohio Pro-Family Network also has been trying to find a sponsor for its idea to ban gay people from adopting children but has no takers so far.

Husted is not hostile to values legislation but has made his priorities and is sticking to them, spokeswoman Karen Tabor said. It's more a matter of practicality when it comes to Ohio's economy, she said. Husted's predecessor as speaker, Republican Larry Householder, didn't face the same challenges, she indicated.

''One of the reasons we're focusing on the economy is that it's not what it was four years ago,'' Tabor said.

While the economy should dominate the legislative debate, there's room for social issues, Seitz said.

''I don't think that means we're not going to do anything else. I'd say it's a case of changing the tone. We're trying to keep our eye on first things first,'' he said.

John McCarthy is a correspondent for The Ohio Associated Press' Columbus bureau.